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The O'Shea Report: September 2003

At every monthly faculty meeting during the school year, Dean of Faculty Donal O'Shea presents brief overviews of recent publications and other achievements by the Mount Holyoke faculty. Here are excerpts from his report for September 2003.


Mary E. Woolley Assistant Professors of Chemistry Wei Chen and Darren Hamilton, and Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemistry Megan Núñez have been awarded $145,945 by the National Science Foundation's Major Research Instrumentation Program to support their project: Acquisition of an Atomic Force Microscope. A laboratory curiosity in the mid-80s, atomic force microscopes have emerged as the tool of choice over the last decade for probing molecular behavior on surfaces. By running a very sharp tip over a sample, they allow one to see features at a scale of several nanometers (a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter), which means, for example, that one can actually observe DNA molecules on a cell membrane. Megan plans to use the microscope with her students to study how some predators alter the membrane structures of bacteria on which they prey and how some bacteria adhere to protozoans. Wei and her students will use it to further their studies of adsorption of latex particles and proteins on various surfaces. Darren and his students will use it to further their design and study of a class of molecules that readily accept and trap electrons. The department also plans to integrate the AFM into its curriculum.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Maria Gomez has received a grant of $35,000 from the Petroleum Research Fund for her project Proton Conduction in Perovskite Oxides. Perovskites comprise a diverse class of ceramics which form nice cubic lattices of great interest for both theoretical and practical reasons. In particular, some conduct protons and show great potential for use in developing ever more efficient fuel cells. However, although there are a lot of conjectures, how this proton conduction takes place is poorly understood. Maria plans a systematic study of calcium and barium perovskites with a view to modeling proton transfer, determining whether the size of the lattice contributes to the rate of proton transfer (and conjecturally related phenomena such as transition state energies, vibrational frequencies, and the like), and comparing to experimental data. The computations that she proposes to do, and have her students do, are massive and require a series of ganged-together computers working in parallel. The reviewers' comments are highly laudatory and betray an eagerness to see the results, along with an awareness that these computations push current electronic structure methods to the limit. In addition to getting the grant, Maria gave birth to a baby boy last week, Conrad Sebastian Gomez-Haibach (7 lbs., 14 oz., which works out to 3,570 grams).

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Gary Gillis's request to the National Science Foundation for $201,486 to support his project Body Size, Limb Posture, and Muscle Strain during Terrestrial Locomotion has been funded. Nothing about this proposal has gone as expected. Gary submitted it in the knowledge that the sort of change of research direction he was proposing would probably not be funded. Then he was informed that the proposal was declined, but that they really wanted to fund it because the reviews were so amazing: "This proposal by Gillis stands as the best RUI (proposal for Research in Undergraduate Institutions) that I have seen since reviewing proposals for NSF and as one of the better proposals in any category. The PI presents an excellent research plan in which he plans to integrate students from one of the best small college student bodies in the country" or "This is the best RUI proposal that I have read in more than 15 years of reviewing proposals for the NSF... The questions addressed are important and timely." The proposal was "undeclined," meaning not awarded, but not declined. Then came word that they thought they could find the money and were recommending it. Finally, it is official. The proposal will allow Gary and his students to study in vivo the size-dependent differences in muscle activity in similar muscles in closely related species. Several features distinguish the proposed work from other work in the field: the work is being done in vivo (and not on dissected muscles in the laboratory), and among very closely related species, and aims at some very specific quantitative results (for example, he conjectures that the degree of stretching experienced by knee extensors during one particular phase of movement is inversely proportional to body size, a result that allows him to predict that these extensors perform different mechanical functions in animals of different sizes).

Darren Hamilton has been awarded $135,000 by the National Science Foundation for his project RUI: Supramolecular Utility of a Versatile New Electron Acceptor. With his students, Darren has worked on synthesis of an unusual class of molecules containing highly symmetric, planar structures called triimides that accept electrons nicely and that can also be used to build molecules with prescribed topologies. This proposal will allow them to continue to explore this class of objects. One of their ideas is to try to construct new liquid crystals with attractive properties.

Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics Janice Hudgings and her collaborator, Rajeev Ram, at MIT, have been awarded $270,000 by the National Science Foundation for their project High Performance Thermal Profiling of Photonic Integrated Circuits. One of the developments of the last decade has been the beginnings of the development of photonic integrated circuits, which are the analogue of integrated circuits for optical circuits (that is, the placement of two or more optical circuits on a single substrate). They propose to develop a set of thermoreflectance techniques that will give them unprecedented access to what happens inside such circuits and their components (such as lasers). Preliminary work by Janice and her colleague indicate that they can deduce the properties they need from measuring thermal distributions in lattices. They will use Mount Holyoke undergraduates to conduct experimental measurements, having them work with an MIT graduate student to adapt some of the equipment, and a postdoctoral fellow to coordinate efforts between the campuses.

Megan Núñez has received a $20,000 startup grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation for her project Needle in a Haystack: Removing Base Lesions from DNA. She will try to determine how lesions in DNA are recognized by inducing such lesions and studying structural factors that might allow recognition of them. She will have students measure the lengths of damaged DNA using atomic force microscopy.

Associate Professor of Geology Alan Werner has been awarded $79,283 by the National Science Foundation for his portion of a collaborative project with Brown University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Illinois entitled Holocene Climatic Variability in Southern Alaska--Quantitative Estimates of Temperature and Precipitation, Warm Intervals, and Possible Cyclicity. Growing concerns over global warming have resulted in intense studies of climactic changes in the Holocene era (which is the name of our era, the period since the last ice age 11,000 years ago). Studies of ice samples from northern Europe suggest the existence of climactic cycles with periods on the order of a century. This grant will allow Al and his students to join students from Brown, Illinois, and Northern Arizona universities to try to see whether ice and lake patterns in Alaska show evidence of similar cyclical variation. This grant is in addition to the $507,581 grant that Al, and his colleague Steve Roof of Hampshire College, received this summer to bring students to high arctic in Norway to study modern climate change.


If you listened to any public radio station this summer, or if you watched C-Span, you would have heard discussions with Senior Lecturer in Women's Studies Martha Ackmann about her book The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight, which appeared in June with Random House. The book gives a whole new perspective on the beginnings of the U.S. space program. It recounts the heartbreaking and shameful, and for me, completely new, story of 13 women who had been recruited to participate in the early space missions, who had been tested and trained and allowed to hope and dream, and who were then summarily brushed aside purely on account of their sex. Martha's account is careful and utterly absorbing. One learns a great deal about Jerrie Cobb and the much-better-known, but not wholly admirable, Jackie Cochran, and of the differences between the two. You won't ever think of John Glenn in the same way. Read it and rage, or weep, or both.

Professor of English and Codirector of the Weissman Center for Leadership Christopher Benfey's new book The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, which appeared with Random House in June, gets my nomination for the "if-you-read-just-one-book-this-year, this-should-be-it" award. It is an utterly engaging account of nineteenth-century New Englanders who became fascinated with Japan, and their Japanese counterparts who were drawn to the West. The subject seems a bit offbeat at first, but winds up touching an enormous number of aspects of the era. It gives Chris a launching point for character sketches that sympathetically bring to life an enormously unlikely range of characters. Where else would one encounter the Cabots and the Lodges in the same narrative as Creole historians, Japanese orphans, Rabindranath Tagore, samurai, and delusional novelists? Chris's limpid prose beguiles as surely as a fine postprandial brandy, and reading the book seems very like joining a series of dinner conversations among old friends in which the conversation lingers on friends of friends and ranges freely over time and place with many points of contact among them. In the introduction (which is better read last), Chris hopes that he has sketched a map of intersecting journeys as much as a history. He succeeds brilliantly. His prose and sheer narrative ability mask the scope and range of the scholarship that undergirds his map.

Occasionally one comes across a book that opens up a whole new world. Such was the case for me with Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor of Jewish Studies Larry Fine's Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, which appeared in early summer with Stanford University Press. The book provides a very accessible, and even compelling, introduction to medieval Jewish history and mysticism through the study of one of its most mysterious and influential figures, Isaac Luria. Larry begins by outlining the ironies of Luria's short life and extensive influence: Luria's desire to restrict teachings to a small number of initiates contrasts with the huge amounts of literature his teaching inspired; the wide scholarly acceptance of the centrality of Luria to the development of Jewish mysticism contrasts with the paucity of scholarly studies of Luria; Luria's emphasis on people and praxis contrasts with the almost exclusive focus of scholars on Luria's mythic conceptions. In a way that is as artful as it is difficult to describe, Larry creates enough mystery about Luria that you simply cannot put the book aside because you want to know more. You find yourself asking how an individual who did not seek fame, who wrote little, and who lived such a short time, could exert such an influence on others. You want to know the answers to the questions that Larry raises, to know what Luria's spouse and friends thought. Once hooked, you hang on Larry's account of what is actually known, and with what degrees of certainty and why. Like him, you wish for more and follow closely as he sifts through writings and oral accounts. The book unites textual analysis, history, the history of religion, Jewish studies, performance studies, and even feminist criticism. It is clearly the fruit of decades of study and reflection, and bears the mark of a master patiently laying out a case, knowing that what is being said will break new ground and forever change the way future scholars will approach the subject. This is the real thing. The wonder is that it is so accessible and so compelling.

You have to see Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Vanessa James's visually stunning The Genealogy of Greek Mythology: An Illustrated Family Tree of Greek Myth from the First Gods to the Founders of Rome to fully appreciate it. It appeared this summer as a result of a collaboration between Melcher Media and Gotham Books (a member of the Penguin Group). It looks like a book, but is actually a cross between a two-sided scroll and a book. It is a long (over 20 feet) two-sided, beautifully illustrated and annotated genealogical chart, fan-folded between two covers. You can read it page by page like a book or open up several pages at once. On one side you have the gods; following the lines down and turning it over, you get the first generations of mortals issuing from those gods. It is scholarly, it is beautiful, and it is impossible to stay out of. After you see it, you will never again want to consult a standard encyclopedia of mythology.

A new book of Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer in the Humanities Mary Jo Salter's poems, entitled Open Shutters, has just appeared with Alfred A. Knopf. The poems are wonderful and defy description. They are full of surprises, of unexpected shifts of tempo and wording and tone that always delight and that often freeze time much as a flash does. Dickinson's injunction to "tell all the truth, but tell it slant" comes to mind. Mary Jo tells it slant, and the results are often unforgettable, be they about the neighbor's dog who "stands on the deck in back of their house like a figurehead fixed on the wrong direction ... His profile's imperial, nearly Egyptian," or a father's loss, or a riff on Raymond Chandler. Her poems "TWA 800" and "An Open Book" are as lovely and as unlikely memorials as I have ever read. I keep trying to decide on my favorite two or three poems in this collection and can't. There is too much to like, and I keep changing my mind.

Two new books by William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Roberto Marquez arrived on my desk. I've not had a chance to read them, so will report next time. Likewise, I have not had a chance to do any more than look at the pictures in a new book by Associate Professor of Art Anthony Lee and John Pulz. The book, with a foreword by Florence Finch Abbott Director of the Museum Marianne Doezema, came out last month with Yale University Press and is entitled Diane Arbus: Family Albums. It accompanies the Diane Arbus exhibition at the art museum. (If you haven't done so already, go see the exhibition -- it is spectacular.)

Wen Xing's translation into Chinese of Robert Hedricks book Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching appeared with Academy Press, Beijing, 2003. Sadly, we lost Wen to Trinity University. However, he will be returning to campus this year to participate in and help organize a conference on the recently discovered older versions of the Tao Te Ching that differ considerably from what had been considered the canonical versions.


Professor of Music Allen Bonde's composition Celebrate was performed fives time this summer in Australia (including at the Sydney Opera House).

Assistant Professor of English and American Studies Jeffrey Santa Ana received a Ford Fellowship for Minorities to finish up his dissertation work (which deals, among other things, with the commodification and globalization of ethnic and racial identities).

Visiting Associate Professor of Italian Francesca Santovetti has won a fellowship for the spring 2004 semester from the Bogliasco Foundation. The fellowship will allow her to work on her manuscript Picturing Southern Questions: On the Politics of Adaptation.

--The May 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The April 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The February 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The December 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The November 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The October 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The September 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The May 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The April 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The March 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The February 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The December 2001 O'Shea Report more>
--The November 2001 O'Shea Report more>

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